The left and political theory: a disaster story
This is the second part of the introduction to my theoretical writings. In the first part, I described the long decline in socialist beliefs in the West and asked the question of whether it is possible to reinvigorate belief in a socialist alternative.
The great bulk of leftist political theory can be traced back to Karl Marx. His theories were products of a life-long attempt to conduct a rigorous scientific analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society. His influence can still be felt to this day - virtually every leftist political current, from the social democrats to the bolsheviks and even the anarchists, base their understanding of historical dynamics on his theoretical model. Although these currents differ strongly on methods for getting there, they all share Marx's goal of socialism (or at least they did until the social democrats gave up the ghost and effectively abandoned political theory).
Marx's analysis had much to commend it - his basic approach, of applying materialist structural analysis in order to understand social dynamics, was innovative and is still as valid as ever today. However, whereas nowadays we have a wide range of techniques that can be applied to eliciting the dynamics of complex non-linear systems - from sophisticated suites of statistics, to stochastic simulations and many more - Marx had to make do with dialectics, which was an extremely rudimentary and semi-mystical approach that he borrowed from Hegel. Thus, it is not surprising that the model that he produced had many flaws.
If one goes to the trouble of picking through his turgid prose and bombastic rhetoric and applies a retrospective critique to his hypotheses, one can identify various predictions that he got wrong. For example: his notion of identity and how it was determined by economic forces was far too simplistic and turned out to be profoundly wrong; his view of historical development was far too mechanistic and linear; his assumption that the problems of social organisation would be trivial to solve once the parasitic capitalistic class were removed from the equation turned out to be spectacularly over-optimistic.
However, the prestige and growth of mass-based socialist organisations owed much to their intellectual leaderships' claims to a Marxist theory that was 'scientific'. This made it politically difficult for them to admit that there could be errors in his theories. Thus, they resisted evidence that seemed to contradict his predictions and gradually lost the ability to improve their theoretical models. This created a progressive ossification of socialist theory as it failed to incorporate inconvenient new scientific findings.
The process can be seen most clearly in the state doctrine of the Soviet Union, where effective research in many scientific disciplines was rendered impossible as certain foundational theories and methods were considered sacrosanct, even though they were useless. Dialectical materialism in the social sciences and Lysenkoism in biology were especially effective ways of preventing theoretical development. Marx's attempts to provide structural descriptions of how modern economies work gradually turned into articles of faith rather than science that could stand on solid empirical foundations.
It took some time for ossification to take hold entirely and for Marxism to become totally isolated from scientific advances. In the pre-WW1 period, Marxist-inspired parties were full of scientists and critical thinkers and reality was yet to diverge strongly from Marx's predictions. Figures such as Gramsci and Kautsky were far from being slavish followers of doctrines handed down from above. However, the mystical status that Marx had gained within the socialist movement meant that theoretical modifications had to be introduced as patches on top of his theories rather than corrections of his mistakes. This led to an increasingly arcane, brittle and rigid theoretical foundation, where even the slightest deviation from orthodoxy required tortuous logical twists. Consequently, even those Marxists who ploughed a furrow independently of Moscow became increasingly isolated from the mainstream of scientific thought and increasingly reliant on faith over evidence. Today, this theological transformation is almost complete - the approaches of contemporary disciples of Marx often resemble medieval scholastics or strange religious cults more than social scientists.
There were also, of course, people who were influenced by Marx yet recognised the inadequacy of some aspects of his model. As the 20th century progressed it became increasingly obvious that the masses were not converging on a proletarian identity as he had predicted. However, the typical response to such limitations coming to light was to abandon the structural and analytic aspects of his work while retaining the rhetorical and mystical parts - the worst of all worlds. The post-modernists, post-structuralists and the broad academic movement that emerged around them from the 1960s onwards, have produced a great big morass of vague, impressionstic portraits of various aspects of 'modernity' and "subjectivity" from which it is difficult to extract a single unambiguous proposition, never mind a testable theory. Today they still reign supreme in many university's humanities departments where they often eschew the very idea of 'totalising discourses' and even, in some cases, reject science itself, based upon a straw-man caricature of the worst excesses of the scientific community.
Others simply substituted wishful thinking for sound structural analysis - celebrating acts of individual rebellion like smashing windows or fighting police (or even liberating cheese!) or convinced themselves that loose, semi-organised networks of 'activists', televised protest movements and technological developments were somehow game-changing innovations that would transform the global social order despite the total lack of supporting evidence. Last, but by no means least, are those who abandoned the idea of there being an alternative to the economic status quo and limited their ambitions to winning elections and maybe curbing some of the worst excesses of the current social order when they got a chance - the great majority of parties that were once social democratic eventually took this route.
As time passes, the memory of the Soviet Union will continue to fade from popular consciousness and the left will once again have an opportunity to define itself by its theoretical propositions rather than images of Russian gulags and concrete tower-blocks. However, if it is ever to rebuild its intellectual base, it needs to be able to convince people that its project is based on a sound theoretical basis. No matter how disaffected they become with the current social order, smart people will not march into battle without being convinced that there is a realistic prospect of arriving at something better at the end of it.
The underlying problem that led to this disaster story was not that Marx was a bad scientist. His basic approach of materialist structural analysis in order to understand social dynamics, was far ahead of most of his contemporaries. The problem was that a political movement adopted a particular scientific theory as representing eternal truth. Political movements are expressions of shared values and all science can do is to provide a method for figuring out the best way to realise those values, and the best answer to the question will continue to change with time. A political movement that cannot accept changes in the answers will find itself rapidly heading down the same cul-de-sac that the left fell into once Marxism became detached from empiricism.
My journey through the left ran in parallel with a journey through science. As my scientific understanding deepened, I found myself increasingly coming across political beliefs and approaches that I knew to be either wrong or, worse still, "not even wrong" because the questions and concepts that were being debated just didn't make any sense. Many of the problems I encountered are far from exclusive to the left, and many scientific misunderstandings are rife across the political spectrum. However, I am much more familiar with the intricacies of political discourse on the left, and the left at least aspires to care about truth and reason, so that is my focus. Over the course of the coming year, I plan to publish a series of articles that look at the various areas where political discourse tends to ignore modern scientific understandings. The following is a list of the themes that I will touch upon:
- Modelling – how and why we build simplified models of social systems and what we can do with them.
- Social Classification - dividing up populations into groups (social classes, genders, ethnies, nations...), how you do it, what you can say about these groups and why the answers to many common political questions (e.g. "how many classes are there? does the middle class exist? are we all middle class now? ) belong to the "not even wrong" class.
- Rationality - why the rational political actor is a bad approximation of how human cognition actually works.
- Communication and language - why explicit language-based communication of political ideas is tremendously limited and frequently ineffective in the dissemination of ideas.
- Measurement & planning - why simple metrics are so useful and how they relate to centralisation and planning
- Science - why critiques of science, empiricism and 'positivism' are wide of the mark.
- Revolution – why premising a political project on large-scale institutional and process re-engineering in a short time period is a very bad idea.
- Democracy – why democracy works well only in fairly narrow and specific areas.
- Deduction – why deductive reasoning is almost useless when it comes to analysing actual social dynamics.
- Materialism and culture – why ideas are material things too and why they really do matter.
- Elections and political parties – why it’s ineffective to combine policy formation and fighting elections in political parties.
- Economics – why both Marx’s economic theories and neo-classical marginalism are poor models of real world economies.
It’s worth addressing, in advance, some misconceptions that might arise about the scope of this work:
This is not anything like a scientific theory of politics. I merely want to show how modern scientific understandings on some of these issues contradict some of the basic assumptions of a lot of political discourse on the left.
This is not innovative. None of what I say is based on novel research. I am merely distilling various findings that impact upon political analysis. Almost everything that I say is fairly uncontroversial from a scientific point of view. Many people have said this stuff before and better than I can. However, I know from experience that many of the implications of these findings are quite unknown in political circles. Correcting that to whatever extent I can is the limit of my ambition.
I am not an expert in all of the disciplines that I will be talking about. However, computer science is a very broad discipline and I have been fortunate enough to have worked on interesting problems that required me to read scientific literature in a fairly wide range of relevant areas. I have a reasonably solid understanding of what can be said with confidence about most of the above themes and have access to experts in others to review my writings.
This is not political propaganda. Many of the things that I will be saying go against my own wishful thinking. I do not want them to be true, but they just are. I think that greater social equality is a desirable goal, which places me on the left of the political spectrum. I think there’s lots of evidence to suggest that greater social equality would bring with it lots of benefits that most people would consider desirable. However, that’s not all that important – I would be in favour of greater equality even if the evidence suggested that it created significant social problems. I prefer societies that are more equal because that’s what I prefer. I have no more interest in proving that science says that my political values are correct, than I am interested in proving that my fondness for cheese is scientifically correct. Hence I’m going to try to leave my values out of this stuff altogether.
I will be publishing these articles in draft form. If anybody can point out any inaccuracies in what I publish, I will correct them as soon as possible. Similarly, any suggestions for ways in which the drafts can be improved will be considered. However, I'm going to avoid getting drawn into philosophical debates with people who have profound disagreements with my approach.
I will factor these theoretical articles out of the rest of the material that I publish because there’s probably a somewhat different audience for this stuff compared to my more personal, anecdotal political stories. Still, for anybody who does enjoy the stories, I would encourage you to have a look at this theoretical stuff – not all theory is boring and turgid! I will make a concerted effort to keep the language accessible and clear to a broad audience, but some of the material will probably be a little bit difficult. I will publish the first article in this theoretical series towards the end of this month (May) and every 2 weeks or so thereafter.
With that introduction out of the way, I will return to the main narrative of my political journey for the moment. In the next installment, which I’ll publish on Friday, I’ll return to Chomsky and how he relates to my political development...